Friday, April 28, 2006

I suppose looking at the U.S. from the outside, it would be tempting to assume that we are simply belligerent morons who will happily torture, imprison or kill whoever we want, regardless of whether they pose any actual threat to us, and that we will happily destroy the economy and infrastructure of any country whose leaders we do not like. And this would be a fairly accurate assessment. By "we," I mean the collective whole of which we are a part, depressing though that may be for those of us who disagree with what the behemoth "we" is doing.

To us, the Muslim world sometimes looks like a bunch of raving loonies who have no sense of self-preservation and will happily do anything to bring us down. But look at the evidence - a tiny faction of the raving loonies have managed to destroy two large buildings and some airplanes. We've destroyed entire countries, massacred entire armies. We have left allies to die alone after promising them our support. We are a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.

So I think it's a bit silly to argue that we should be afraid of what the Islamic countries of the Middle East will do to us, as if it is they who are behaving irrationally.

I don't mean to imply that we are evil. We aren't. But sometimes it's more instructive to judge a country by what it does, than what it intends. Especially when one is a citizen of that country.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A little more on the topic of Chernobyl. Death isn't fair. And there are many ways of looking at the same situation.

One way to frame the last days of the firefighters of Chernobyl is to talk about the mistakes that they made, because they didn't really understand what the situation was. Who would? The situation was unprecedented. One can also talk about the injustice of what happened - that Soviet officials allowed such an unsafe plant to be built; that mistakes were made that lead up to the disaster that finally happened. That the firefighters were allowed to go in there essentially unprotected. One can frame the firefighters as victims.

But death makes victims of us all. I think that the fact that someone is a victim, when they die, isn't an important part of their life story. You might well use it to talk about how to prevent deaths like theirs in the future. You might use it to punish the people responsible. But for them, the story is over, and the talk of victimhood is irrelevant and essentially meaningless.

I'm not trying to elevate the idea of a "good death." There is no good death. It's certainly not my goal in life to die a hero, and I'm sure it wasn't theirs either. But nevertheless, they did die heroes.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tonight in our Tibetan Translation class we got an impromptu teaching on the activities of a bodhisattva. It seems there's a common phrase, repeated many times in the Tibetan texts: gTONG bSrUNG DAG sPEL - giving, protection, purifying and increasing. It's said that a bodhisattva does these four activities with respect to three things - his or her body, possessions, and store of goodness.

So earlier today, on the way from Tucson to Bowie, I was listening to NPR, and there was a story about Chernobyl. And that story started me thinking about a Robert Heinlein story, the Green Hills of Earth. The story I remember has a character who finds himself in a situation where he has to choose between entering a lethal radioactive environment, or allowing a terrible catastrophe to occur. He comes home in a lead coffin. There's a big ceremony - I think they dropped his coffin into the sun, because it wasn't safe to bring it back to Earth.

The thing about this story is that we don't have to look into the future for it - it's not really science fiction. When Chernobyl blew, it caught fire. The fire was sending lethal radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere. Firefighters were sent in. After ten days, they put out the fire. They all died, horribly. They all had to know that they weren't getting out of the firefighting effort alive. They did it anyway.

It's hard to really express the magnitude of what they did, because the honest truth is that they mitigated the damage caused by the disaster. It's hard to say what that meant in terms of lives saved - who personally benefited from what they did. They sacrificed their own lives, died horribly, to clean up a mess someone else made, because they knew it was the right thing to do. By all rights, there should have been a ceremony to honor what they did like the one in The Green Hills of Earth, watched by every person on Earth. But there wasn't. Maybe there was a ceremony like that in the U.S.S.R. - I don't know.

But anyway, the ceremony doesn't matter that much, except that it's an opportunity for us to admire what they did, and wonder if we have the courage to do the same in the same situation.

So tonight's teaching really hit home for me. We, personally, have seen real-world examples of the act of giving as it relates to one's own body.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A couple of really cool links, one artsy, one related to a practice that Buddhists sometimes do in retreat, where you do essentially dynamite your sleep schedule in order to be doing practice around the clock.

The art looks like the setting for Chimera; the sleep thing sounds like it might be worth trying on my next retreat, although on the other hand it might make you really lungy (loong gi), which is a real danger in retreat. You get all agitated, and ideas start popping out left and right; you can't sleep, and you start to experience mood swings. It's pretty nasty - something to avoid. Still, the idea of polyphasic sleep is intriguing.

Speaking of pronunciation, I think I only learned how to pronounce chimera when I was in my early thirties - it's one of those words you see written with some regularity, but almost never hear. At first I was pretty sure the person who spoke it to me was pronouncing it wrong. Kigh Mair uh. Weird.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Oh, how funny. I never explained why I knew that quotation from Isaiah. It's because at the end of the Bionic Woman two-part show about armageddon, she's sitting with Oscar outside the building that contains the doomsday device, just looking at a little monument that's carved there. And the quotation from Isaiah is what's carved on the monument. I really liked that - it was probably the first thing I'd heard in my young life (I remember having nightmares about The Bomb when I was four) that gave me any hope at all that mine wasn't going to be the last generation on Earth.
Over on Waiter Rant, there's some reminiscing going on about bell bottoms. A friend of mine from New York, whom I have known since she was probably eighteen, was standing around with me chatting tonight, and the topic came up for us, too. There was some talk of Satyagraha as well.

Anyway, at some point I found myself quoting one of my favorite verses from the Bible, from Isaiah, which goes something like this: "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up arm against nation; neither shall they make war anymore." Needless to say, Rebecca was impressed that I could quote Isaiah from memory, at least until I explained to her why that was.

You see, back in the seventies there was this great show called "The Bionic Woman." I always liked it a lot better than the Bionic Man, maybe because Lindsay Wagner was cute - I don't know. Be that as it may, I remember this one episode where at the beginning, Oscar was all excited because, in a bid for peace, they'd put a stockpile of nuclear weapons in a safe facility where they couldn't be taken or used ever again, protected by a supercomputer. I think fembots were involved in some way.

Anyway, the obvious happens - the computer goes nuts, on the orders of its mad scientist creator, and suddenly the stockpile turns into a doomsday device. Lindsay Wagner has to somehow sneak past all the fembots and the now-homicidal, yet still genial supercomputer in order to disable the thing. She makes it all the way down and succeeds, only to learn from Oscar that the air strike that's been called in to destroy the facility will set off the doomsday device anyway.

Needless to say, I was on the edge of my seat. Why? Because that was in fact the world we lived in. At any moment, bombers could be flying. When I woke up to a loud sound at night, and there was a bright light outside the window, my first thought would be regret that the world had ended so soon. My second thought would be "oh, yeah, that's the heating system." It was nervewracking. I genuinely expected to die on the same tragic night as every other living person in the world. I didn't know when it would happen, but I had no thought at all that there was any real chance it wouldn't happen. In the back of my mind, as a teenager, I wondered if I'd get to kiss a girl for the first time before the bombs hit, and if we heard that the end was coming, would we have time to make out first, so at least we could have one last angst-ridden moment of happiness?

It's strange to look back on those times. Really, the world is no less dangerous of a place now than it was then, but I don't think people in their teens and twenties living in middle America seriously expect to die in a nuclear war. There's the rapture crowd, but I think they mostly expect they'll miss the war, because, well, their vehicles will be unmanned.

The worst thing that ever happened to the country after Vietnam was 9/11, which was a blip compared to what we were all expecting during the Cold War. And yet it was enough to catapult our country into chaos and paranoia the likes of which hasn't been seen since the days of McCarthy.

It's really a sweet thing to live in this world of ours, and it's interesting how our worst fears can simply vanish overnight, for reasons entirely beyond our control.
I'm plagiarizing this link off Will's blog, for the three people who read mine and don't read his:

It's good stuff. I particularly like the part about flying kites, because I think a lot of us get the other part, but our Protestant work ethic rebels against the idea that we, too, need to stop regularly, not just once in a while, to smell the flowers.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

What I feel I expressed poorly in my previous post is this: I'm not saying we need more Gandhis. Gandhi was a Great Man. Great Men don't make the world a better place. They try, sure, and you could say that change flows around them, but where the change comes from is not them, but from us.

Why did the civil rights movement work? Because lots of people, in droves and scads, said "stop. enough." People who were downtrodden. People who were not. People in power. People in poverty. A lot of people. That's how Satyagraha works too. It wasn't Gandhi who won India's independence - it was the people of India, hearing what Gandhi said and putting it into practice in their hearts, and in their daily lives.

Today, we are they. Real change comes from a place of honesty and fearless conviction - not from what we urge others to do, but from what we do ourselves.
Will finished his first draft, so I figure it's fair game to revisit the billionaire thread for a minute. It's with a bit of a sense of futility that I do this, for reasons that will quickly become apparent, if they aren't already obvious to you, my gentle reader.

The problem I want to talk about is the question of whether it makes sense to call someone who is a billionaire selfish. The reason I think this is an interesting question is that I think calling people unpleasant names is hurtful to one's self and one's acquaintences. So you should have a good reason for doing it. Why is it hurtful? Because thinking about unpleasant things is upsetting, detrimental to one's peace of mind. We have to think about unpleasant things - I'm not suggesting that we avoid doing so. But if we have to do so, I think it needs to be constructive, or else it's just needless pain.

So in one sense the question of whether billionaires are selfish is academic. If they feel selfish, and that feeling makes them unhappy, they should do something about it. If their existance is unpleasant to me, that's too bad - they have as much right to exist as I do. To the extent that they undertake to harm me, or others, in order to acquire their wealth, I have the right, if not the ability, to seek redress, but as long as they aren't undertaking to harm me, I really don't have any recourse. And if their existance is unpleasant to me in the abstract, that's my problem, not theirs.

So then we can narrow the topic to billionaires who do harmful things in order to become wealthy, or to remain wealthy. We can argue about what things are harmful, and what are not - there's even a case to be made that simply sitting on wealth is harmful, although I have to admit that I'm reluctant to go so far.

And now we come to the use of force. If you are a billionaire, you have a great deal of force at hand. If you want to fight a billionaire, and you aren't yourself a billionaire, you need to find a powerful ally. The usual ally we choose for battles like this is a government. But governments are fickle allies. Their job isn't really to champion our causes - it's to make sure that nobody gets too badly hurt, and that there's a certain dependability to transactions that occur between their citizens and other citizens of their own or other countries.

And here's where it gets sticky. When I try to enlist the government to fight people with a lot of power, those people can do a few things. They can attempt to fight back directly. They can attempt to subvert the government using bribes of various kinds. Or they can try to convince the people who hold the reins of power to side with them, not with me. In a democracy, this is easy. You buy ads.

To me, it looks like a fair amount of subversion is going on - you see sweetheart deals with various governments in power, where someone uses access they bought through campaign financing to get something of value - tax credits for "coal enrichment" that's really just spraying piles of coal with creosote before burning it, for example. Avoiding having to pay for external costs like the cost of the pollution caused by the product they sell to make their billions.

But what's most successful is going straight to the people, and this is what is really frightening. And this is what leads me to make the claim that calling a billionaire selfish isn't useful. The reason I say it's not useful is that name-calling is such an easy tactic. There's no depth to it. Anybody can do it. It works through plausible repetition. And that means that it works better for people with a lot of money than it does for people with no money.

Anything that truly addresses our social ills has to go a lot deeper than that. There has to be content. Constructive content. And the content has to have equanimity. It has to apply to everybody, not just to billionaires. And it has to come from the heart, from personal experience and practice.

It's been really depressing watching politics over the past, well, my whole life, I guess. There's so much name calling, and so little substance. So little actual speaking truth, to power or to each other. So very few Malcolm X's. So very few Gandhis.

When the people change the world, the way we change it is the way Gandhi did. The way Martin Luther King did. The way Stephen Biko did. The way Ken Saro-wiwa did. Satyagraha. Not speaking truth to power - just speaking truth to everybody, and having no fear of the obvious consequences of our words, if our words are just. Living a true internal life - a life consistent with the world in which we want to live. Being willing to have a gun pointed at us and fired, and not shoot back, if that is the best way to make the world a better place.

So why the feeling of futility about writing this? Well, the sixteen people who read my blog, if I dare be so optimistic, might agree with me, but what good does that do? And where is the stand for me to make? The only stand I even know how to make is to do my own practice, and behave as well as I can, and try to help the people around me in ways that I can, and try to avoid hurting them. Anything beyond that, any grand political plan, seems like so much sophistry.

So if I have any optimism for the future state of the world, and I do, it rests entirely on the hope that if I can effect real change in myself, I can be a part of the changing of the world, not by forcing anybody to do anything, but simply by infecting other people who know me with the spirit of change. If enough people quietly practice Satyagraha on their own, in the daily little stands that they make, where nobody gets hurt, but many smiles are smiled, then maybe there's some hope for the future.

Monday, April 03, 2006

There's an article in the Australian press that I think is interesting. The gist of the article is that Apple's dominance in the iPod market is about to take a severe beating, because cell phones are starting to become as capable as data storage devices as iPods, and when this happens, the desire to have less crap in our pockets will drive people away from iTMS.

I think the author is half right. His point is that Apple has a stranglehold on the market, but what he's missing is that the big cell phone providers are trying to get a lock on the market themselves. And we all know that the tighter you squeeze your market, the more star systems slip through your fingers... Er, the more customers.

Anyway, Apple's lock on the market is a weakness, just as the wireless phone companies' lock on their market is a weakness. The question is really who blinks first: Apple, the wireless companies, or us. I guess the smart money right now is on us - we seem thus far to have accepted whatever the market hands us. But the cell phone/iPod split is interesting.

Consider this: I have a Samsung t809 phone from t-mobile. This little baby has a transmedia flash card, which holds up to a gigabyte. And t-mobile seems to be pretty smart about not crippling their phones. I spent several weeks dithering over the fancier phones and networks that Verizon and Sprint offer, but finally just got disgusted with their attempts to squeeze the maximum amount of blood out of me and went with t-mobile, who bent over backwards to make me happy.

So now I've got this cute little phone, and guess what? It doubles as an iPod killer. Granted, 1g isn't very much storage, but it's early days. Wait for it. When t-mobile starts shipping 30g phones, things could change suddenly.

The bad news for Verizon, Sprint and their ilk? I don't have to pay t-mobile to listen to tunes on my phone, but I do have to pay Verizon and Sprint. This is a no-brainer to me - the cost of being with the big providers is too much. (Don't talk to me about Cingular - they're even *more* expensive). So now t-mobile, which arguably has a worse network, has a competitive advantage: they aren't jerks. So what if I'm a little bit harder to reach? I don't really like being interrupted anyway.

What does this mean for Apple? Simple: I can't use iTMS music on my phone. It's not an Apple product, it doesn't support fairplay, and so I am shut out. My solution: buy CDs, rip them, load them into the phone. Sure, the CDs cost a little extra, but it's worth it to escape the fairplay DRM.

Oh, right, you're running Windows, so the CD installs a rootkit on your machine. Consider a different operating system. Ubuntu is nice. No CD-based rootkits, no autorun at all. Your favorite artist uses too much DRM? Well, either buy the music from iTMS and burn it to CD and then rip it, or consider whether or not you really like that artist as much as you thought you did. There are a lot of other fish in the sea.

I was fairly enthusiastic about iTMS to begin with, but when the DRM started seriously getting in my way, I stopped buying iTMS music.

So I think the author is right that Apple's clock is about to get cleaned, and he's right that cell phones will be the vector for the cleaning. But I think he's wrong about how it will actually happen. I think what will really happen is that nobody will blink, we the listeners will leave Apple, Verizon and Sprint in droves, t-mobile will take over the world, and I'll happily listen to music on my phone.

And yes, the lesson here really is: the tighter you squeeze your market, the more customers will slip through your fingers. Sometimes a little generosity of spirit can produce a much better cash flow picture. Trying to monetize every last use of your product doesn't just reach a point of diminishing returns: it costs you market share. Of course, before we can take this lesson, we have to wait and see who blinks. I hope it's not us.

That reminds me: it's time for me to burn and rip all my iTMS music, so I can load it on my phone...

By the way, in writing this up, I originally added a sentence to the end of the message stating that copying the contents of my music CDs onto my cell phone was fair use. Arguably, this is true, under the Betamax decision. However, the case where this was really decided was probably the one where the RIAA sued Diamond Multimedia over their Rio MP3 player. It is a battle that is far from being finally decided, however. I don't think anybody's going to get in trouble for format-shifting their music, but my original proud cry of fair use really isn't substantiated by the research I subsequently did to make sure I wasn't just talking through my hat.